Saturday, 15 July 2017

Serious efforts at tackling air pollution: long overdue

Following the success of the Let Bristol Breathe campaign Bristol City Council will be debating its petition next Tuesday. I've submitted this statement of support: Clean air zones, within a proper joined up strategy to tackle air pollution, are long overdue in Bristol. Self-evidently we all need clean, healthy air and it's always felt very strange to have to argue the case for this to brought about. What we take into our bodies, especially as children, affects our growth and development for good or ill. It’s a reminder that people are an integral part of the environment and that their health and wellbeing are dependent upon it.

Bristol has made much of its aspiration to be a sustainable, green place to live but its dirty, unhealthy air is one very clear sign that we are a long way from this objective. Government figures show that tens of thousands of people die prematurely across our nation because of air pollution, including hundreds of Bristolians, each and every year. The main cause is our heavy road traffic - thus the need for clean air zone implementation now.

Air pollution is a major public health issue - especially for children and those already vulnerable, with existing health problems such as asthma, bronchitis, heart problems or obesity. Air pollution causes coughing, chest pains and lung irritation in everyone but children are particularly vulnerable as their lungs are still developing and they get a bigger dose of pollution per unit of body mass, as well as being at a height much closer to exhaust pipe emissions than adults.

I've been a green campaigner in Bristol for 35 yrs. In 1989, with friends Graham Davey and Gundula Dorey, I held up the traffic at Three Lamps Junction in a protest to highlight the health problems due to air pollution. Despite progress which has taken lead out of fuels and lowered carbon monoxide pollution a good deal we are sadly still a very long way from having healthy air  on the site where we protested, at the junction of Bath Rd and Wells Rd, as well as many other places right across the city. I spoke in the media in 1989 about tens of thousands of premature deaths nationally and hundreds within Bristol - and I can still use this exact phrase today, 28 yrs later. This is a very clear indication of insufficient action. Pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, particulates and ground level ozone frequently exceed the annual World Health Organisation and EU limits.

One place whose air pollution levels I've looked into is St John's lane, a road with two primary schools on or near it that has become choked with traffic such that you can taste it. I've taken data from the Parson Street pollution monitoring station on nitrogen dioxide and found that in both 2015 and 2016 annual pollution levels were around twice the EU and WHO annual limits ie fluctuating on or around 80 micrograms per cubic metre when the limit is 40. I've no doubt that in many other years pollution levels have been like this. Parents and staff at Parson St School and Victoria Park School have contacted me to express their concerns - and they have taken their own action to obtain more data and to find out what solutions might be available.   

Every day too many vehicles are trying to use Bristol's roads. Each weekday many thousands of vehicles cross into and out of Bristol’s city centre. Bristol’s resulting traffic congestion generates serious, health damaging air pollution. In Old Market the annual mean concentration of nitrogen dioxide breaks the EU annual limit. In St Pauls ground level ozone concentrations break the EU annual limit.

We need clean air zones as a clear step in the right direction, to both

  • define areas of the city as a particular focus for action to improve air quality
  • and in certain places to require drivers to pay a charge to enter or move within them if they are not driving a vehicle that meets the emissions standard needed, thus raising money that should be invested in low pollution transport options

We need to keep all the most polluting vehicles from all the most polluted places, as a step towards the whole city having healthy air quality that is below the annual pollution limits instead of regularly breaking them.

Clean air zones are most effective within a well thought out, joined up strategy. A properly joined up strategy to tackle air pollution in cities should include local and central government working together - and with local people - to address:
  • the need/demand for all transport to begin with (provision of local services, facilities and jobs lowering the need for transport)
  • shifting from high impact means of transport such as cars and lorries to lower impact means such as light rail, trams, walking and cycling
  • reducing the impact severity of all the most polluting means of travel, tackling diesel fuelled vehicles especially
  • harmonising planning policies and practices with sustainable transport so that one doesn't contradict the other
  • establishing a truly strategic, integrated approach across the West Country area
  • bringing back the public service ethos of public transport
  • making the price of methods of travel fairly reflect their actual total costs (buses, trains, trams should be made a lower cost option relative to cars and lorries)
That there is a serious health problem should not be in dispute. It is longstanding, at a serious level and deserves urgent action. Air pollutants cause us all harm due to loss of health, comfort, stability and amenity - and they poison us because of their toxicity. Pollutants harm species growth and damage the living and built environments too. The UK Supreme Court decided against the Government and ruled that an immediate air pollution plan was needed as the UK consistently breached EU limits for nitrogen dioxide pollution. Environmental law firm Client Earth took the case to court and are continuing the pressure for proper action, in particular in the UK's cities. Bristol needs to play its part by implementing clean air zones, within a joined up strategy to tackle air pollution.

Air pollutants originate from sources such as Bristol's heavy traffic, follow certain routes, and pathways and spend extended periods in locations, sinks, such as when particulate matter from vehicle exhausts penetrate deep into all our lungs. Some air pollutants are carcinogens ie cause uncontrolled cell division (cancer), for instance some of the hydrocarbons such as those present on particulate pollution. There is no carcinogenic air pollution level at which there is no effect. This is because cancer development results from an accumulation of irreversible cell damage.

The combined effect or two or more air pollutants is often greater than the sum of the separate effects, due to synergism. Particulate matter with hydrocarbons, are an example where the pairing causes much more harm than each individual substance. Carcinogenic hydrocarbons on microscopic particulates are delivered to the exact place they can do most harm, deep in human lungs. 

Air pollution factors compound problems caused by the fact that cities are warmer than the surrounding countryside, with urban areas producing and holding in heat. Urban air pollution is often associated with dry, hot sunny days in spring and summer. Ground-level ozone is produced when pollutant mixtures react in sunlight and warm weather over several hours. This can then be blown across large areas. The most damaging pollution episodes often occur during hot, dry, sunny weather and often accompany heatwaves (occurring more frequently due to climate change). Pollution health impacts make heatwave health impacts much worse – and the biggest impacts are on children, on the elderly and those with existing heart, lung and other health problems.

Bristol allowed the building of the M32, which penetrates right into the city, between 1965 and 1975, adding to air pollution. Conventional transport planning is still far too much in evidence here, such as enabling the South Bristol Link (Road) and before that Cabot Circus shopping centre with a large, centrally located car park to act as a magnet for vehicles. Little wonder that air pollution problems are still very much with us.  We need all decision makers - the Mayor, Councillors, MPs, MEPs, Ministers and Secretaries of State - to really understand and be concerned about this problem, to make the connections needed across a range of policy areas and to act in accordance with the seriousness, scale and persistence of the problem. Implementing clean air zones in Bristol would be a good clear, positive step forward. 

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